“If you want to find out the history of a recipe, look at the ingredients. The ingredients tell the story,” Anne Byrn said.
Better known as the Cake Mix Doctor, having penned a book by the same name, Byrn is also a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor. She was hired as a food writer upon graduating from the University of Georgia in 1978 and held the food editor position from 1982 until 1993.
I was chatting with Byrn, who now resides in her native Nashville, because she also is the author of the forthcoming “American Cake,” to be released in September by Rodale Books. One of the recipes in the book is for hummingbird cake, a new-to-me dessert that I wanted to understand better since it isn’t part of my Northern upbringing.
“It definitely belongs in the South,” Byrn said. “The fact that it is considered a Southern cake — you can attribute that to Southern Living and their coverage of it.”
What she was referring to is a recipe created by a Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, N.C. That recipe is essentially a three-layer pineapple-banana spice cake with a cream cheese frosting spread between the layers and over the top and sides of the cake. The top is then decorated with toasted pecans.
The recipe ran in a 1978 issue of Southern Living and has become that magazine’s most requested. A colleague printed it out for me just a few weeks ago when I inquired about the cake. She also wrote this note: “This is supposed to be the original hummingbird cake.”
The original. Those words are what we journalists live for, curious bunch that we are. Was it the original? Not according to Byrn.
Back to her point about ingredients telling the story and offering a timeline. “What pops out is the crushed pineapple,” she said. “It was a popular ingredient in the 1960s. It followed the whole tropical ingredient passion in America.”
If you are of an age, perhaps your mother, like Byrn’s, also used crushed canned pineapple in salads, casseroles or dump cake.
Byrn went further and discovered that the first hummingbird cake was not referred to by that name, but rather as Dr. Bird Cake. “It’s what they called a hummingbird in Jamaica,” she explained. “It’s also the logo on Jamaica Airlines.”
Sifting through newspaper archives, Byrn found out that Jamaica Airlines had held press parties in New York and Miami in 1969 to promote Jamaica as a travel destination. What did they serve at those parties? A cake containing tropical fruit flavors of bananas and pineapple. The bananas were mashed, the pineapple crushed and the cake was baked in a tube pan.
What about the layered cake part and the cream cheese frosting? How did those happen? As Byrn retells the tale in “American Cake”: “Helen Moore, the food editor of the Charlotte Observer at the time, remembers receiving the press release and sharing the cake recipe with her readers in North Carolina.” Enter Mrs. L.H. Wiggins and her bright idea to adapt the recipe by baking it as a layer cake and topping it with cream cheese frosting.
“American cooks take a recipe and run with it. That is what happened with the hummingbird cake we know,” Byrn said as we chatted on the phone about the ingenuity of home cooks.
“It’s not a cake that came out of bakeries,” she noted. “It came out of the home kitchen. That’s because that recipe was shared by food editors from newspapers.”
I mentioned to her that, even so, I planned to visit a bakery whose hummingbird cake had been recommended by multiple AJC readers. A couple of hours later, I was standing in front of the register at Gabriel’s Restaurant & Bakery in Marietta, paying for a 7-inch hummingbird cake.
I asked the cashier if she knew anything about the recipe they used. “I think it’s from Ms. Mary Moon, the Cake Lady of Marietta. When she retired, she gave all her recipes to Johnnie,” she replied.
Johnnie? That would be owner Johnnie Gabriel, baker extraordinaire, cousin to Paula Deen and thrice cookbook author — including of the 2008 title “Cooking in the South With Johnnie Gabriel,” which includes, among other things, a recipe for hummingbird cake.
Gabriel had left by the time I arrived, so I’ve yet to sit down with her to get the backstory on the recipe she uses, but that hummingbird cake from Gabriel’s — boy, is it tasty!
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